This is Why Empathy Needs to Drive Design Thinking

Having empathy is an important skill. Recently I learned the importance of employing empathy within Design Thinking. While I don’t have a background in design, I wanted to learn more about the process and how best to support our team and clients with this method. Here’s what I learned. 

Empathy Comes First

Empathy needs to come first when designing. It helps place us in another person’s shoes to understand how they feel about their problem, circumstance, or situation. This automatically requires us to put aside assumptions and not jump to immediate problem-solving without understanding. When we start with the other core principles of design thinking (define, ideate, prototype, and test) we run the risk of designing something that only fits our own perspectives and assumptions instead of addressing the people who are directly impacted.

I tried a small experiment on my own: gathering images of my co-worker’s home screens from their phones. I wasn’t designing anything specific. However, I wanted to compare the differences between something that seemed simple and, from my perspective, had a narrow scope. I found out very quickly how wrong I was. 

The first thing I noticed was not everyone puts a family photo as their background! I didn’t interview people, I merely asked them to send me a screenshot. Yet, a feature as simple as a background can be so different for every person. If I were to go deeper and interview them as to why I’m sure I would find some interesting answers. 

Second, the number of applications and their organization is very different. I’m a minimalist when it comes to apps and I would rather see my background picture than app icons. Others have all their icons laying out there or are very strategic in how they group their apps. Even the amount of notifications existing on the screen is different! 

“People ignore design that ignores people”
– Frank Chimero

In today’s world, technology is often built for the sake of creating something new. However, it should be used to support people and their specific needs. Frank Chimero’s quote sums it up quite nicely. If a design disregards people, their preferences, needs, and desires, people will not use what was designed. Even if it’s cool. While researching and reading literature to write this post, I came across an article that compared two instances of design thinking: one with empathy and one without. 

Design Thinking: Putting Design First

The scenario without empathy involved Google’s Google Glass in 2013. These were wearable glasses that allowed users to send messages. They could also take photos, view information such as weather and directions, among other features. While this may be a cool concept the glasses didn’t address any real needs or wants that users desired. Plus, the user had to use verbal commands and from a social aspect that’s just awkward. Imagine saying out loud, “Ok glass, send a message” while on a crowded subway. All eyes are on you instantly. Plus the glasses looked awkward and in my opinion, would feel awkward to wear. They weren’t some sleek glasses that were inconspicuous. There was a noticeable device that sat at the corner of the frames. This product didn’t really take the user into full consideration. The design came before the user instead of the design supporting the user. 

Design Thinking: Putting People First

The other scenario discussed was The Embrace Warmer which was designed by Stanford postgraduate students and first launched in 2011. The Embrace Warmer is an ultra-portable incubator that can be wrapped around an infant and be used while the infant is being held in the mother’s arms. This provided a solution to developing countries where death rates were higher with premature and low-birth-weight babies. Incubators were hard to come by. The students spoke and worked directly with families in remote villages. This allowed them to reframe the challenge and design a product that met the basic needs of the babies and mothers. The Embrace Warmer helped save lives. 

The design that used empathy as the first step took into consideration more than just saving a child’s life. It considered the struggles remote mothers experience not being near hospitals and the important act of holding their own child. Plus they accounted for cost, maintenance, and resources that medical professionals consider. The design without the use of empathy didn’t consider the person who might use the product. Though, if your design doesn’t consider the person, the person won’t consider buying your product. 


The research I conducted on empathy and design thinking made me more aware of how to work with my teammates and our clients. I still am not a designer, but I pause to listen instead of jumping straight to a conclusion. Empathetic research goes beyond facts, it’s more about motivations and the thoughts of others. It’s listening to what people mean instead of just the words they say. If you haven’t stopped to think about empathy in the workplace or with a design, I would encourage you to do so. I’ve broadened my skills and have new motivation to be more empathetic.

Learn more about Empathy:

Ask an Innovator Episode 23: Innovation Starts with Empathy

Keep Reading

Share on social